Jaime Teevan wins Borg Early Career Award

Jaime Teevan, it seems, can do it all. Since joining Microsoft Research in 2006, her focus on personalized search has led to a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a couple of best-paper awards from prestigious academic conferences, and recognition from Technology Review as one of the world’s top young innovators. She has established herself as among Microsoft's leaders of the future. Teevan serves as an affiliate assistant professor at the University of Washington Information School. 

Thus, it comes as little surprise that on April 22, the Committee on the Status of Women in Computing Research (CRA-W) has named Teevan as the 2014 winner of the Anita Borg Early Career Award.

That honor, named after the late Anita Borg, a CRA-W pioneer, is presented annually to a woman in computer science and/or engineering at a relatively early state in her career who has made significant research contributions while also having a positive, significant impact on advancing women in the computer-research community.

Oh, and one other thing: Teevan is also the mother of four children under the age of 10—all of them boys.

How does she juggle her professional and familial responsibilities?

“People often ask me for the secret to having little children and a productive research career, but, unfortunately, if there is one, I haven’t discovered it,” says Teevan, whose husband, Alex Hehmeyer, is a program manager for Microsoft’s Skype unit. ”It’s a lot of work, and the only way I succeed is with a lot of support. My husband is an involved partner and father, and Microsoft Research provides a lot of flexibility.

“I do, however, find that parenthood and research are complementary. Being a mother makes me a better researcher, and vice versa. My children force me to allocate my time productively, prioritize sleep, and approach problems creatively. And conversely, being able to escape to the office sometimes keeps me from going crazy with all the noise, mud, and chaos at home.”

It might be a stretch to say that Teevan was setting her sights on winning the Borg Award, but on the other hand, she certainly knew about it. Her Microsoft Research colleague A.J. Brush won the award in 2010, sharing the accolade with Radhika Nagpal of Harvard University.

“I’ve been aware of the award for a number of years,” Teevan confirms. “A.J. received it in 2010, and I remember being really impressed with all that she had accomplished when I read her citation. The past recipients include a number of researchers I respect a lot, and it is an honor to be recognized alongside them.”

In its announcement of this year’s award, to be presented on Australia’s fabled Gold Coast when the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) holds its 37th annual international Special Interest Group on Information Retrieval conference (SIGIR 2014), the CRA-W cites Teevan’s multidisciplinary approach to search research:

“Working at the intersection of human-computer interaction, information retrieval, and social media,” the CRA-W release states, “she studies and supports people’s information-seeking activities.”

Teevan summarizes her approach as “personalized search.” In fact, she served as co-author, along with William Jones of the University of Washington, of the 2007 book Personal Information Management. In 2010, Teevan and Microsoft Research colleague Meredith Ringel Morris co-wrote the book Collaborative Web Search: Who, What, Where, When, and Why.

Right Information at the Right Time

“My research explores how context can help people use digital information successfully, both from an algorithmic perspective and from an interaction perspective,” she says. “In particular, I look a lot at the personal, social, and temporal context of information use. My goal is to use context to make the right information available at the right time in a lightweight and intuitive manner.”

Much of this work has been influenced by Susan Dumais, whom Teevan calls “my longtime mentor.”

It seems fitting, then, that at the same SIGIR event in which Teevan will be receiving her Borg Award, Dumais, too, will be delivering her Athena Lecture, an honor bestowed upon her on April 8 by the ACM Council on Women in Computing.

“The conference,” Teevan says, “will be a fun celebration of women in computing—and of women at Microsoft Research in particular! One of my 7-year-olds will be coming with me to celebrate, too.”

That is another of her interests. With four young children, she is a staunch advocate of enabling researchers to achieve successful integration of parenthood and academic efforts. She has written several articles about traveling with children to conferences, and she has encouraged the committees that plan such events to provide additional assistance for attendees who are also parents.

The goal of the Anita Borg Early Career Award is to encourage actions to increase the number of women participating in computer-science and engineering research and education—at all levels. Borg herself was as inspiration for her commitment to achieving that goal, and through Teevan’s willingness to mentor young researchers, her work with graduate students, her discussions about gender and family, and her ongoing web series about academic writing, she exemplifies what the award is all about.

“We spend almost all of our time in research looking into the future,” she observes. “I am always thinking about what I want to figure out next or what I want to help make happen. Receiving this award has encouraged me to pause and reflect a little on the past. It was surprising to realize that I actually have already accomplished a lot, and it makes me even more excited to keep pushing forward!”

Story posted on Inside Microsoft Research, April 22, 2014